Q&A – George Roach

Materials World magazine
31 Mar 2017

Natalie Daniels talks to George Roach about a new lithium and tantalum mine in South Africa and how diamond drilling is helping to understand the geology of the mine.

Tell me about your background and career to date.

I have been involved in the mining industry for more than 35 years in various capacities. Before founding Premier African Minerals, I was the founding Director of Uramin, a uranium explorer and developer, which was acquired by the French nuclear company Areva in 2007. Prior to that, I had been involved in mineral development in many countries throughout Africa with a particular focus on opportunities in Southern Africa. 

What does your work at Premier African Minerals involve?

I am the founder of Premier, and my role as CEO and chairman is to drive the day-to-day development of our assets. We have a significant portfolio of mining projects from advanced stage exploration, such as our Zulu lithium and tantalum project through to near-term production such as the RHA tungsten mine. In addition, we have recently acquired an operating forestry business with an associated limestone deposit in Mozambique. Further to this, we have a number of significant investments in private resource companies. Our flagship project is the RHA tungsten mine, Zimbabwe, and as this project is on the cusp of starting production, a lot of my time is dedicated to this.

We have recently completed a 2,500m drilling programme on Zulu – a very exciting hard rock lithium and tantalum project in Zimbabwe. It is probably not well known that Zimbabwe is actually the world’s fifth largest lithium producer, so it’s a country with a lot of potential. The Zulu project has a strike length of more than 3.5km and is the largest underdeveloped lithium project in Africa at this time. Our drilling programme had two goals. First, to test for strike and depth extensions around the current known mineralised areas and secondly to establish a maiden resource. The first goal has been achieved and we are now working towards establishing a maiden resource, which we expect to release early in Q2 of 2017.      

How much tungsten do you plan to produce? 

The initial target is to bring this mine to approximately 7,500 tonnes of wolframite per month on a throughput of 40,000 tonnes per month. Run-of-mine feed will then pass the concentrator before entering the gravity recovery sections of the plant. At full production, wolframite production could increase to 10,000 tonnes of tungsten trioxide per month at a concentrate grade of more than 60%. 

What is your biggest exploration site?

The Zulu lithium and tantalum project is our key exploration asset and we believe that this is the largest undeveloped hard rock lithium project in Zimbabwe. It was explored in the 50s and 60s, but there has never been a concerted exploration effort to establish a code-compliant resource. 

We have just completed a 20th hole at 2,500 metres. Our technical team is very excited about this project. When we started, the strike length of the mineralisation was around 3.5km around 200 metres deep. Our drilling programme has confirmed this and intersected mineralised areas, which were not previously explored. To date, we have returned intersection of up to 40 metres and intersections grading in excess of 2% Li₂0.

In addition to Zulu, we own a stake in TCT IF, a substantial forestry business and associated limestone deposit. Initial results suggest that the limestone contains commercial grades. What is unique about this deposit is that the Tete/Beira rail link, complete with three-line siding, runs on the northern boundary of the concession. This significantly reduces the capex as well as the time to bring this project online. Early metallurgical testwork indicates acceptable grades for cement production. We are planning to conduct an exploration programme later this year to establish an initial resource.   

What are the advantages of diamond drilling over conventional drilling?

Diamond core drilling provides a good understanding of the geology as well as the structure of the mineralisation. It’s a great tool to get an understanding of the subsurface. But, having established a resource and then upgraded it, a lot of firms tend to use a more economical drilling technique or reverse circulation drilling, which are much faster, use less water and are significantly cheaper. At Zulu, we are using diamond core drilling to get a better handle on the geology and mineralisation. However, at our limestone deposit in Mozambique, we are planning on using RC drilling instead, because we already have a good understanding of the geology.  

Have you noticed a trend in the demand for lithium?

The lithium sector is really quite interesting. Almost daily we receive news of car and truck manufacturers that are releasing new electric vehicle models and there is demand for such cars in Western Europe and China. There seems to be a significant shift in public opinion as a results of increased pollution from petrol and diesel cars and trucks and a big push to increase the number of electic cars on the roads – I don’t expect this will stop any time soon. You may have heard that Rolls-Royce is now developing an electric engine, so I am very bullish on the short- and long-term outlook for lithium.     

The demand for tungsten has increased. Have you seen a change off the back of this? 

Yes, we have in a number of ways. Bearing in mind we are not yet back in production, we can see that supply is tightening. There are not that many new producing tungsten mines outside of China at the moment and I think we will make a significant contribution in terms of the suppliers outside of China. A good indication is that we get quite a few calls from traders who want to secure off-take agreements for wolframite concentrate. It is not just traders who contact us also intermediate companies and direct producers of metal and appropriate process technologies across a number of countries, including India and Russia. 

How has the mining industry changed over the course of your career? 

I think we are still mining in the same way as we did years ago. We are still going through the same regulatory hurdles, sometimes to a greater extent than we used to. The costs of bringing projects into production have escalated. I think there is now much more of a conscious awareness of environmental and social issues – all for the better. However, some of the difficulties are related to emerging economies that have a view on value to their economy but not necessarily the procedures, processes, costs and capital needed to develop a mine. You often see situations that are struggling and not developing as well as they should. 

What further changes can you see happening in the next few years?

I think it will be more of the same. I hope that in Africa sphere, there will be more flexibility in regulations imposed on mining companies. Miners need to continue developing better social consciousness and regulators need to understand the risks and costs associated with mining. 

George Roach is the Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Premier African Minerals Limited. He has also worked as the Managing Director of G&B African Resources Limited and Chief Executive Officer of AgriMinco Corp until February 2014. He has been involved in the mineral exploration industry of sub-Saharan Africa for a number of years with experience in securing and establishing mineral exploration tenure and operations in the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa